More On Future Self Paternalism

Robin recently wrote a post asking whether it makes any sense for your current self to take actions that "paternalistically" constrain your future self.  Below are some points in response, most of which were already mentioned in one form or another in the comments to Robin’s post.

1. Current you has no choice but to act in some sense paternalistically towards future you simply by virtue of the fact that current you came first.  It is inevitable that current you will make choices that set the stage for future you, which requires current you to make decisions based on what’s good for future you.

2. The standard that must be met for future self paternalism to be rational may not be that current you has to be systematically more rational than future you; the standard may only be that current you has to be more rational than future you at his weakest moment.  And that’s not a very hard standard to meet.

But the specific examples in Robin’s post weren’t about the general merits of future self paternalism, they were about whether it makes sense for a young liberal to constrain himself so that he doesn’t turn into an old conservative.  It is undoubtedly a fact that people tend to become more conservative as they age, so the phenomenon that the young liberal is worried about is real.  The question is whether it can be rational for the young liberal to think that this is a bad thing; that he is currently right but that if he gets on a certain path he’ll become less right as he ages.  To be sure, there are good reasons that cut in the opposite direction;  it naturally seems like people should get wiser as they’ve had more time to learn and reflect, and in very few intellectual fields is top work done by the very young.  But there are some reasons why the young liberal might be right after all.

3. For at least certain kinds of critical thinking, there tends to be a deterioration over time, not because of reduced cognitive functioning, but merely because people leave formal educational frameworks, and so spend less time thinking about the kinds of things that are taught there.  You probably have to continue to do a certain amount of certain kinds of thinking just to stay even, and that is precisely what you are less likely to do (you have less time, there’s no one around to do it with, etc.) if you go into your old man’s business.  So it may be that in some meaningful sense you do simply become less rational.  If study and reflection lead to the conclusion that liberal beliefs are true/good, and if you know that you will be doing less study and reflection, then you can expect a reduction in the truth/goodness of your beliefs unless you think that future you will be smart enough to take this into account and defer to current you’s views, which is a doubtful proposition.

4. But the biggest issue, in my view, is indoctrination.  The standard reason given for the fact that people  that is that older people have seen more of the reality of life, and that it is that confrontation with reality that gives them more conservative views.  The obvious alternative reason is that what happens as you age is that the capitalist system has more time to grind you down.  You spend your days working in an organization whose explicit goal is making money, and which expects and encourages you (both materially and psychologically) to act as if you have bought into that goal.  And you can’t just switch it off at quitting time, and even if you were tempted to try, you wouldn’t have a supportive social framework to do it in; some of your colleagues will never have been on board the liberal program to begin with, and the rest won’t want to be reminded of how badly they’ve sold out to The Man.  And once you’ve started thinking in this way, it gets a lot harder to think about things like social justice, and it gets a lot easier to start lazily indulging your prejudices (and those of your class) against the poor or foreigners or whatever.

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